CLEVELAND — In Balzac’s novel “La Peau de Chagrin,” he attacks nineteenth-century French society for its superficiality and vacuity. He describes a scene at an opera house where no one in the audience is watching the opera itself. They are all looking around to see who is attending, whom they are with, and what they are wearing. The performance itself is ignored. It was a spectacle within a spectacle.
This is what the Republican National Convention is turning out to be. Not because people are looking at one another’s clothes or celebrity-spotting, but because the entire reason for the convention—selecting a candidate behind whom the party can unify—in a sense has ceased to exist. Everyone here is going through the motions, play-acting at nominating a candidate they believe in. The spectacle isn’t the nomination itself. It’s the media and police circus going on all around it.
As Jonah Goldberg pointed out, conventions have been stale and scripted for some time:
…the convention was a failure before it even began. Because most of us have only known political conventions as stage-managed infomercials, we’ve come to think that’s their actual purpose: to throw a grand party for the candidate who won the most delegates. But conventions predate that function by more than a century.
If a convention used to be about picking the candidate everyone could agree on, now it’s become a ceremonial coronation. The purpose, nominating an electable candidate, seems to have dissipated, leaving only the carnival, with featured speakers like Scott Baio and Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White.
This time, however, it feels like Donald Trump, with the help of the Republican National Committee and Reince Priebus, is going to crown himself. It evokes the painting by Jacques-Louis David that depicts Napoleon crowning himself emperor, rejecting the traditional role of the pope. This was Napoleon’s way of asserting he would be subservient to no power on heaven or earth.
Big Buzz, No Honey
So too with Trump, as evidenced by the suppression of NeverTrumpers’ effort to force a roll call vote on the convention rules Monday, by far the only moment here that has felt anything like a convention. Also, while the cameras show a packed convention floor of enthusiastic delegates, they don’t pan up to the lackluster attendees sitting up in the stadium seats. I was astonished Monday night to see so many empty seats.
The spectacle within the spectacle also extends to the rallies and protests outside. In the weeks leading up to the RNC convention there was broad concern that violent conflicts would erupt between pro- and anti-Trump groups, with particular fears that neo-Nazi groups would clash with leftist groups, as we saw happen in Sacramento in June.
Some were expecting professional, paid protestors to chain themselves to cement blocks on the freeway, or wrap their bodies with tubes filled with human feces. The Cleveland Fire Department trained its firefighters how to interact with such professional protestors, and organized special “cut teams” to cut them out of chains and other protester impediments. The Lawyers Guild of Ohio sent legal observers scattered throughout the event zone to keep an eye on the police and ensure they’re not violating protestors’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.
But so far, nothing has happened. The legal observers have been sitting idly by, and an acquaintance of mine in the fire department says he’s not been called out of the fire house during his cut team shifts, and has seen little action on his regular shifts.
Nothing to See Here—No, Really
Settler’s Landing, where a pro-Trump rally took place Monday, felt like a concert that booked too large of a venue. The most notable thing about it was that there seemed to be just as many media as rally attendees. While searching the area for people to interview, especially anyone under the age of 45, I found most of them were in fact journalists. Of those whom I did try to interview, at least half declined because they’d just spoken to a dozen other members of the press due to the high proportion of journalists to supporters.
The media, I realized, was just wandering around in a daze trying to find something, anything, to write about. We became the event, not the Trump supporters. The most exciting thing that happened was Eric Andre coming onstage during Alex Jones’ speech, talking nonsense about Jones sleeping with his wife, and Jones awkwardly trying to riff off it.
The protesters who did show up amounted to a few dozen at most. The police outnumbered them because they, like the media, thought there was going to be a clash, some drama, a show. But instead, the spectacle was the long line of cops on either side of the road, shoulder to shoulder, ready for a rowdy crowd that never materialized.
This was more or less repeated the following day downtown at Public Square, the large square near the Quicken Loans Arena, where various activists and protestors have been setting up shop. Here, numbers were stronger and there was a bit more vitriol and anger. But again, the police were so numerous that they almost outnumbered the protestors, many of whom were just your typical far-left and far-right radicals preaching fire and brimstone from both ends of the spectrum—the kind of protestors that might show up at any large event.
In fact, aside from the Trump rally on Monday, it’s been surprisingly hard to find Trump supporters to interview. Almost everyone you run into is either a delegate, a member of the media, or part of the political machine. They’re all there for one another’s pleasure, to make it look like something is going on. But just beneath the surface we know we’re the show, and that nothing is really happening.